Organic? Natural? Confused!

What is organic food versus non-GMO? What does the word ‘natural’ mean on a food product?  I would wager that every person who has been to a grocery store has been confused by the labels on the sea of products on the shelves. It’s important to always read the ingredients label and to really consider what is printed on a product — from beef, to orange juice, to chips. Remember, food manufacturers are businesses.  The logo, pictures on the box, recipes on the back of the package, and words like “healthy” are all ways to try to sell their product and make a profit.  We should be knowledgeable about the food we buy and what the following labels mean:

USDA Organic

In 2002, the U.S. Department of Agriculture began using an official USDA Organic seal on food that is certified organic. For a food to display the official seal, the farmers raising the crop/animal have to follow strict guidelines issued by the FDA to meet the requirements. It’s not just a matter of withholding pesticides — there are other criteria that organic food products must meet. According to the USDA, organic farms and processors:

  • Preserve natural resources and biodiversity
  • Support animal health and welfare
  • Provide access to the outdoors so that animals can exercise their natural behaviors
  • Only use approved materials
  • Do not use genetically modified ingredients
  • Receive annual onsite inspections
  • Separate organic food from non-organic food

When you buy organic food, you know that not only was is grown without toxic chemicals, but it also promotes sustainable organic labelenvironmental practices, and if it’s an organic animal it wasn’t raised in a restrictive tiny cage.

Be sure to look for the organic logo on products noting that it is officially recognized as meeting these requirements.  Although, sometimes you may come across a food item with the word ‘organic’ on it which not display the USDA seal. This does not necessarily mean that the product is not organic. Some smaller manufacturers, farms and farms markets don’t turn enough profit to meet the requirements to apply for certification and do not consistently use the label. Whenever there is any rule or regulation, there are some rule-breakers so it is possible to come across foods claiming to be organic when in fact, it is not.  However, the USDA is strict about enforcing the term and violators can be fined several thousand dollars for non-compliance.

Non-GMO

Genetically-modified organisms (GMOs) are a hot-button topic in the U.S. and globally.  Advocates say GMOs are a crucial way to feed the world’s growing population and combat hunger in third-world countries. Opponents argue that genetically modifying products all along our food change will have a definite negative effect on our health. Delve into some more research of your own to decide where you stand on the matter. However, when it comes to food labeling, know this. For a food to be labeled organic, as mentioned above, one of the criteria it needs to meet is being non-GMO. However, a food can be non-GMO but not organic. Food producers who can’t or don’t want to meet all the criteria for organic certification but who don’t use GMO crops in their production can still tout the non-GMO on their label.

Natural & Other Claims

You have probably seen terms on many food items like: All-Natural, Raised Naturally, Made with Natural Ingredients/Flavors. Currently, there is very limited regulation on food products labeled ‘Natural.’  The exception is meat/poultry which can calim it’s natural if it does not contain artificial ingredients or added color and is only minimally processed.   However, because the regulation is not air-tight, food manufacturers can take advantage of the context of wording.  According to the USDA, “For example, claims indicating that a product is  natural food, e.g., “Natural chili” or “chili – a natural product” would be unacceptable for a product containing beet powder which artificially colors the finished product.  However, “all natural ingredients” might be an acceptable claim for such a product.”  Consumer Reports did some really interesting research on the topic, showing 7 foods labeled as natural but revealing the very unnatural added ingredients.

 

On your next trip to the grocery store, take a closer look at the food packaging.  On any given product, you will often see an important-looking statement like “made with all-natural oats”, “X grams of whole grain”, or “100% Whole Wheat”.   A statement about one thing like whole grain or protein content, can be a distraction and it is often used as a marketing ploy.  You will focus on how much protein it has but not turn the box over to read how much sodium it contains, or that the top five ingredients include sugar AND malt syrup AND invert sugar.  Don’t rely on the bold statements on the front of the package, but instead on the legally required information on the back which will allow you to draw your own conclusion about the product.
wheat thins full

The more you get into the practice of reading food ingredients, the less confusing it will be when you do your shopping.  You will start to pick up on the marketing tricks of food manufacturers.  There is a lot that needs to be done in the area of improving regulations, and that requires us as consumers putting pressure on the food product industry.  But the most useful resources that we have right now are our hands and eyes.  Don’t just put food into your shopping cart.  Turn it over and read!

 

Share your comments or questions!  What labeling do you look for when you buy food?

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Bag It Up

How many plastic bags do you use in an average week?  It may be more than you realize.  Think about buying green beans or apples at the grocery store — what do you put that loose produce in?  How do you bag your groceries when you leave the store?  And if you bring grapes or crackers to work, what do you put those in?  It’s so easy to use lots of plastic bags for food without noticing it.  But cutting back on that excess plastic is completely doable with reusable alternatives.  

Let’s start with the source — produce at the grocery store.  Hopefully you’re eating lots of fruits and vegetables (they should be taking up half your plate at every meal!).  For a while, I was going to the grocery store and farmers’ markets and feeling really good about the large variety of vegetables IMG_4872and fruits I’d bought for the week, yet feeling badly that everything I bought was in lots of separate plastic bags.  What a waste!  I did try to reuse them as much as possible, but they often got wet or sticky or tore apart.  Reusable produce bags are a game-changer.  These sheer mesh bags hold all the produce that I buy, and I never have to worry about throwing them out and creating waste.  When they get dirty,  just throw them into throw washing machine with the laundry.  You can buy sets of them online at retailers like Amazon.com.

For grocery bags, recyclable paper bags are certainly preferable over non-biodegradable plastic bags.  But even better are reusable tote bags.  It’s pretty easy to accumulate these.  They’re given out at special events all the time, or you can buy them from grocery stores.  The tough thing is remembering to use them.  Try to keep them by your front door, or in the trunk of the car where they are easily accessible when you’re going on a grocery run.  After a few times of remembering them, it will come ingrained in your memory to bring them into the store.

I’m also a big proponent of bringing lunch and snacks to work.  It saves so many dollars and calories compared to buying over-proportioned and over-priced meals out.  But after munching on those carrot sticks or trail mix, the zip-locked baggies get immediately tossed in the trash.  What a waste of plastic to use something for a few hours and then send it on to a landfill!  Luckily, there are a lot of companies that now make reusable snack bags.  My favorites are Lunchskins and Itzy Ritzy.  And lots of Etsy stores sell these reusable bags.  I wash these in the laundry or dishwasher after each use.

So try cutting back on plastic with reusable bags.  It will keep heaps of plastic out of landfills, and will save you money in the long run!

Water Bottle Woes

Humans are supposed to drink eight 8-oz. glasses of water a day to stay healthy and hydrated.  And in the past decade, more people actually are reaching for water as their daily thirst-quenching drink rather than soda — a great step towards better health!  But because so many of us are on-the-go, we are much more likely to drink water from bottles in our cars than from glasses sitting at a dining room table.  However, disposable plastic bottles have a huge impact on the environment.water bottle fact text

Most empty water bottles are tossed into a garbage can rather than a recycling bin and end up in a landfill or incinerator.  And by most, I mean billions of them every year.  With billions more to come the next year. The Natural Resources Defense Council states that, “Most bottled water comes in recyclable PET plastic bottles, but only about 13 percent of the bottles we use get recycled. In 2005, 2 million tons of plastic water bottles ended up clogging landfills instead of getting recycled.”

Plastic water bottles also require a huge amount of oil in the process of getting into our hands.  Yes, the trucks and ships that transport pallets of water bottles around the world daily require energy, and don’t forget about the bottles themselves!  Plastic is a petroleum product and water bottle manufacturing in the U.S. alone requires millions of barrels of oil.  Not to mention, when you buy a whole case of water the whole thing comes shrink wrapped in plastic as well.

You can choose help diminish the environmental impact from plastic water bottles with a few simple actions:

  1. Avoid plastic water bottles.  Instead use a water filtration system at work and at home, and use glasses and/or reusable water bottles.  My favorite is the glass Camelbak Eddy
  2. When you must use plastic water bottles, always recycle them.  Even if it’s not convenient and it means carrying around your empty bottle for a while until you spot a recycling container.
  3. Encourage recycling in your community.  If your neighborhood streets and parks have trash bins but no recycling bins, petition your local government.

Also, this quick video does a great job of showing how water bottles are marketed, manufactured and disposed of — with shocking truths all the way through the process…

Speak up!

On a recent trip to Trader Joe’s to stock up on nuts, dried fruit, and frozen foods, I was very happy to come across organic teas at a low price. Cha-ching!  I bought a few boxes of chamomile and ginger-pear.  When I got home and opened the first box I was TJs teadisappointed to find that each tea bag was individually wrapped in clear plastic.  I went from feeling good about the prospect of drinking tea whose leaves had not been sprayed with pesticide, to feeling guilty that each time I made a cup of tea, I was dumping plastic into a landfill. Maybe one tea bag wrapper doesn’t seem so bad, or even the 20 wrappers that come in each box. But picture every plastic wrapper from every tea bag from every box of TJ’s organic tea sold around the country, all piled up together.  I’m guessing that would be an enormous amount of plastic.  Why couldn’t Joe wrap his tea in a more eco friendly package?  Especially given the likelihood that people who are interested in organic tea are also concerned with the environment.

I figured it couldn’t hurt to write to the company to see what they had to say.  I remember my resourceful grandmom often did this, and with online feedback forms now it’s easier than ever.  I was thrilled to hear back from Trader Joe’s customer support a few weeks later noting that they are I am Only 1 text-piclooking into the issue with their supplier.   We’ll see if the next box of TJ’s tea that I buy will be any different.  If not, I’ll have to find a new favorite.  But I hope my little story helps to show that you shouldn’t feel silly or shy about asking your retailers about packaging or sourcing.  It is your prerogative as a customer.  And the more they hear about it, the more likely they are to change their products for the better!